Finding alternatives to avoid an energy crisis
Shanghai hosted the Principal Voices debate on Alternative Energy on November 13, 2007, where a panel of esteemed experts discussed ways in which alternative energy can counter the twin threats of climate change and dwindling natural resources.
Joining the hosts, Michael Elliott, TIME Magazine International Editor and CNN International anchor Michael Holmes, were: Juliet Davenport, CEO of Good Energy, Kishan Khoday, assistant country director for China and team leader (energy and environment) of the United Nations Development Program, Jeremy Leggett, CEO of Solarcentury, and Chengliang Ma, president of SIIC (Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation) Dongtan Investment and Development Holdings.
China boasts two of the world's largest alternative energy farms - one solar and one wind - and, beyond its investment in clean energy infrastructure, the Middle Kingdom has become a gathering place for leading researchers and innovators in the green tech sector. An example of Chinese innovation in sustainable development is Dongtan, the pioneering eco-city planned for Chongming Island, located on the outskirts of Shanghai.
The city - the first of four such eco-cities in China - is designed to be completely self-sufficient in water and energy and to have zero-greenhouse-emission transit. Showcases of emerging environmental technologies will be a key element of Dongtan, a city that will house an eventual population of 500,000 over an area one-third the size of Manhattan.
Ma, one of the key drivers of Dongtan's development, recalled the excitement of his team at the project's outset. "As we developed the land, we were using it as an example and a testing ground for new technological and environmental solutions," he said. His team scoured the world for partners that could help see their vision of sustainable carbon neutrality from reverie to reality. From London-based planners Arup to Shanghai's Tongji University, many parties have eagerly contributed to the world's first zero-carbon experiment.
Michael Elliott then posed the million-dollar question: how to scale visionary initiatives such as Dongtan for widespread local impact?
While the panelists acknowledged that there was no clear answer, they agreed that an integrated approach involving diverse stakeholders would be critical. Projects such as Dongtan prove that the technologies do exist; the question is now which solutions to bring to the mass market, and how to do that.
Currently, less than one percent of the world's energy is from renewable sources, but a disproportionately large amount, a record $100 billion in 2006, is being poured into its development. Global sales from clean energy sources are expected to grow to as much as $1 trillion by 2030 according to estimates released by Morgan Stanley.
Though the market potential is impressive, the panel cautioned against getting lost in the numbers - the public, they stressed, must remember the urgency of matters at hand. "We're in a race against time," commented Leggett, "and it's a race driven by climate change and the physical abatement of both oil and gas."
Davenport credited high profile environmental crusaders such as Al Gore for the shift in consciousness of consumers toward efficiency issues. "Societies are waking up," she said. "More people are interested now, and the brainpower invested in this worldwide is massive. "
Given all the resources - financial and intellectual - being poured into alternative energies, noted the panel, there exist great opportunities for emerging economies such as China and India to leapfrog over the mistakes of the West.
Ma believed China has fared well in this regard. Rather than seeing its position as a late-bloomer as a disadvantage, Ma said his country has seized the opportunities afforded by its unique position.
Sustainability, as a concept, Ma insisted, has become a top priority of China's government, and it has committed to a scientific approach to development. Ma cited projects in Shandong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces - all of which borrow concepts from Dongtan - as evidence of his claim.
The issue of retrofitting was also brought up as critical area for further research. "As inspiring as the story of Dongtan is, we've got to figure out what how to [maximize energy efficiency] in existing buildings," Leggett said. "It's not just about generating new technologies; it's about conserving energies in existing ones as well."
Khoday believes that the Chinese administration's no-nonsense approach to development will prove fruitful to the world at large. "[Achievements in green tech] are taking place [in China] because there's a very pragmatic approach to these problems here," he said. "The level of imagination and creativity that developing nations are bringing to these issues will shape the future... And because of pressures on China to produce technological solutions in a cost effective way, it will be forced to innovate."
Yet, regardless of whether innovation in China is being driven by necessity or foresight, the reality is that an energy efficiency and alternative energy focus is emerging. The panel agreed that the days of uni-directional transfers of technology are long gone. Learning is now freely flowing between mature and emerging markets, with unprecedented synergies and cooperation between countries, corporations and governments that extend beyond geographic borders.
"The new generation of environmentalists realize that [the case for environmentally sustainable business practices] needs to be proven through a financial, not just an environmental, model," said Davenport. "New entrepreneurs today are saying 'you can achieve profitability out of a green business', and are then encouraging people to be a part of that. You've got the environmental framework but within that, you have the financial rules, and you need the two to work hand-in-hand."
The vision of an integrated, multi-sector approach to sustainability was recurrent in panelists' comments, but Davenport stressed that in order for this dream to become reality, all parties must delve beyond the surface issues.
While discussions about energy efficiency are about greater human progress, Davenport calls for critical examination of the definition of 'progress' and for exploration of what mechanisms are essential - not just those that have been historically used - for its realization.
"What we're talking about when we talk about cars isn't just cars - it's about how to get places. When we're discussing transport, what we're really talking about the service and the convenience it provides," she said.
Davenport cited teleconferencing and telecommuting technologies, such as those in development by Cisco Systems, as oft-overlooked alternatives in discussions on energy efficiency. With regards to the mass market, the costs for such IT infrastructure is prohibitively high at present, but Davenport asked the audience to imagine a world where such systems were commonplace. "In the future, everyone should only have to meet once," she said, speaking of a world where communications technologies would facilitate global efficiency with minimal environmental cost.
In order to redefine "progress," Davenport said, metrics other than financial indicators will need to be selected. "Traditionally, we've used money to measure development, but we need to change that," she said.
A sense of urgency permeated the discussion between audience and panel, as concerns regarding conflict over resources were repeatedly voiced. "What we are seeing now are mere skirmishes compared to what might happen," said Davenport, echoing anxieties expressed by attendees.
Sheri Xiaoyi Liao, president of Global Village Beijing (GVB), a non-governmental, non-profit organization for China's sustainable development, used the Q&A session to voice some of GVB's concerns. A longtime environmental activist, Liao was critical of Western lifestyles - instead of focusing discussions solely on new technologies to mitigate mankind's impact on the Earth, she believed that developed nations need to be held accountable for their comparatively extravagant habits and, if necessary, be pushed to accept lower standards of living.
Looking to the future, however, the panelists were hopeful - the source of much of their optimism was a new class of investor that, they describe, is motivated by the greater impacts of their investments. "Many of the investments [in green tech] are not about technology so much as about delivery and investing in the right companies and the right management that can bring these technologies to market," explained Davenport.
"Right now, there is an insatiable appetite among consumers of traditional media for stories on climate change and renewable energy," noted Holmes. But first things first. The panel agreed that scaling China's success stories - Dongtan among them - is a priority in the short-term. With regards to emerging technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), the experts warned against focusing too much on them at the risk of neglecting pressing concerns. "People tend to think of [CCS] as a universal panacea - it's not going to be available tomorrow," Leggett said, and stressed the importance of simultaneously tackling the issues at hand while working on longer term solutions. A broad outlook that unites stakeholders across all sectors, the panel suggested, is critical to achieving energy efficiencies and, ultimately, realizing sustainable development.